Clarissa Sabattis, Chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseets, foreground, and other leaders of Maine's tribes are welcomed by lawmakers into the House Chamber, Wednesday, March 16, 2023, at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Rena Newell, Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, Edward Peter Paul, Chief of the Aroostook Band of Mi'kmaqs, Kirk Francis, Chief of the Penobscot Nation, and William Nicholas, Chief of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Motahkomikuk, follow behind. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Sonja Birthisel and Rob Laraway are town councilors in Orono. Dina Yacoubagha and Joe Leonard are city councilors in Bangor. Brad Sealfon is a select board member in Prospect.  

A recent column, written by town managers and water district officials, applauds Sen. Angus King for opposing an initiative by Rep. Jared Golden that would place the tribes in Maine on similar footing in terms of future federal legislation as the other 570 federally recognized tribes across the United States. They claim that King’s efforts “averted a disaster” by blocking a modest federal effort.

In our view, this hyperbole distracts from the deeper truth. We represent towns on the same river as the Penobscot Nation, so we know what’s at stake on this issue.

The 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act contains a provision that prohibits the tribes in Maine from accessing beneficial Indian laws passed by Congress if those laws affect or preempt Maine state law. This kind of sweeping exclusion is deeply unusual.

Since MICSA was passed in 1980, more than 150 laws have been passed by Congress to benefit Indian tribes across the country. MICSA has prevented or created long delays to the tribes in Maine accessing benefits from a number of these laws, including the Violence Against Women Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and the Stafford Act.

The authors of the March 13 column suggest that as a result of Golden’s legislation, the Advancing Equality for Wabanaki Nations Act, the tribes in Maine could impose new and confusing environmental protections on their lands, which would upend the uniform application of Maine law. However, the bill Golden introduced last Congress would have only applied to future federal beneficial laws, meaning that the bedrock federal environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, would remain on the books.

The column’s authors also wrote that Golden’s legislation was advanced without the support of the state of Maine. They fail to note that the legislation received support from some state legislators from both  parties and the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission. A bill that went far beyond what the congressman proposed initially passed the Maine Legislature last year with bipartisan support but stalled in the face of a veto threat from the governor. No Mainer we know would agree that the position of the state is reflected in the opinion of a single person, even the occupant of the Blaine House.

Another thing the authors don’t mention is the massive inequity that is linked to the settlement act’s legacy. According to a report produced by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, the Wabanaki Nations are stark economic underperformers compared to the rest of the state and other tribes across the country. For example, the child poverty rate in 2019 spanned as “low” as 40 percent on some tribal lands and as high as 77 percent on others, compared to Maine’s 15 percent overall. The per capita income growth between 1989 and 2020 is an average of 61 percent for tribal members elsewhere in the country but just an average of 9 percent for tribal members in Maine. These staggering statistics speak to the real challenges that recent legislative efforts seek to address.

Now is the time for thoughtful debate on how to address these challenges facing our Wabanaki neighbors and our state, not for fear-mongering. We have a collective interest in protecting our environment and ensuring that our children and families are safe, healthy, and economically secure. It is only by working together that we can secure a better future for tribal and non-tribal members alike.